PASADENA, Calif. - An intriguing blend of fiction and reality, "Murder in Small Town X" is the most compelling "reality" series since "Survivor."
Premiering on Fox Tuesday at 9 p.m., this one-hour hybrid of unscripted reality shows and scripted dramas will appeal to mystery novel fans and reality TV junkies alike. It's "How to Host a Murder Mystery" meets "The Blair Witch Project" crossed with "Survivor."
Set in mythical Sunrise, Maine (and filmed in the real Eastport, Maine), "Murder" imports 10 contestants who act as investigators in a multiple murder. Actors portray 15 suspects in the town, including Mayor Emerson Bowden, service station owner Pru Connor and Police Chief Dudley Duncan. In some scenes, these actors mingle with real denizens of Eastport, making for an unusual mix of reality and fiction.
Gary Fredo, a real-life police sergeant from Southern California, acts as the show's lead analyst, who directs the contestant-investigators as they search for clues, interview suspects and attempt to develop theories about which suspect is the killer. Whoever solves the mystery wins $250,000.
The rules of the game are complex and confusing at first. A "Lifeguard" is chosen at random to stay behind at the investigators' home base (a less ostentatious "Real World" house that mixes L.L. Bean decor with a high-tech mission briefing room). The Lifeguard also gets to choose two people who must play "the killer's game." One person will go to the location of a clue; the other person will meet the killer and leave the game (presumably in a body bag). Neither one knows which fate awaits until he or she gets there.
The relationships among the investigators - befriending one another in an effort to not be sent out to possible "death" - are the only part of the game that encourages alliance building, and it seems tacked on and unnecessary. It's an incidental element in the first episode that detracts from the more compelling mystery.
"Murder" is often creepy and suspenseful, so it's not surprising contestants take it seriously. Sometimes you wonder, though. In the premiere, a woman on her way to get a clue or meet the murderer talks to her children through the camera, saying, "If I don't make it, Mommy loves you."
Doesn't she know reality shows don't actually involve murder?
At least not yet.
Executive producer Gordon Cassidy said the eight episodes of the series were shot continuously, without anyone calling "Action" or "Cut."
Cassidy worked on the San Francisco and London seasons of "Real World" and later helped executive producer George Verschoor create "Fear."
"As rewarding as those were, it seemed to us creating a fictional environment is the next step," he said.
The production took over Eastport, where 35 of 40 downtown store fronts were empty.
"We created this world and populated it with actors," Verschoor said. "(Contestants came to) believe this town really existed very quickly. They accepted this was real and all these circumstances they were going through were real."
The actors who were brought in to play suspects lived in an adjacent town and were driven to Eastport to play their roles, similar to the TV show filmed under a bubble in "The Truman Show."
"But it wasn't like the population disappeared every day at 6 p.m.," Cassidy said. "We'd stagger the actors' schedules so the town continued to be populated during the course of the day."
None of the actors knew the identity of the killer (as in most mysteries, they all have motives), and they were only given information about their characters a little bit at a time. There was no script for scenes between contestant-investigators and actor-suspects, but the actors were given specific information and clues they were expected to convey in those scenes.
"We brought the actors to town several weeks before (filming began) and they rehearsed during those weeks," Verschoor said. "They'd sit in a room getting to know about their relationships, their back-stories, what kind of car they drove, so when the real people arrived, these people had depth of character."
And they did become real to the contestant-investigators.
"They gossiped about them like they were real people," Cassidy said.